Elementary school district enters second year of attendance center model
‘We continue to try to improve our systems each year’
ROCHELLE — Upon starting the 2022-2023 school year last week, the Rochelle Elementary School District entered its second year utilizing its attendance center model after a school board decision opted to close May School and have students attend the remaining three schools by grade level rather than residence.
The decision was made due to declining enrollment and facing a projected half-full May School and an increase in the number of students enrolling in the district’s dual language program, which was previously only at Lincoln and Central Schools. Preschoolers, kindergarteners and first-graders now attend Lincoln School, while second and third-graders attend Central School and fourth and fifth-graders attend Tilton School. Rochelle Middle School has seen no change with the model.
With the shift to the model came changes for students, families, teachers, staff, transportation personnel and administration. District Superintendent Jason Harper discussed the attendance center model entering its second year with the News-Leader on Aug. 19.
“With any change like this, there are ups and downs,” Harper said. “We have seen that increased collaboration by specific grade levels has improved. Each building has gone to great lengths to create a family atmosphere in each building which has been great to see.”
Harper said the new procedures and processes of the attendance center model took time to “iron out.” He believes one of the best things the district did last year was surveying staff and parents on what was going well with the model and what priorities of improvement were.
“We received a lot of great feedback on how to improve a lot of aspects of attendance centers,” Harper said. “We took that list and we worked from there. I think as the semester and year went on, we were able to address concerns that came up. Implementing a new structure is always a challenge because all the routines and processes are new. We continue to try to improve our systems each year.”
One of the primary goals in the change to attendance centers was to increase collaboration between teachers and staff. Harper believes “major strides” were made in that area.
“Just the ways in which we went about increasing ways for our teachers to professionally collaborate and interact with each other was a great step in the right direction,” Harper said.
Harper said he feels like some parents liked the model, and others are still getting adjusted to it, which the district “completely understands.”
“With such a great change for our community and for our schools came a lot of different adaptations that we made along the way,” Harper said. “That sometimes means we try things and they do work, and sometimes we try things and they don't work. We are continually learning as a district and trying to make it a better experience across the board, whether it's transportation or anything for our teachers, parents and students. We're continuing to try to get better each year."
As far as whether the attendance center model will continue in the years to come, Harper said that’s tied to enrollment numbers and the future of currently-empty May School.
If enrollment increases, the district will run into space issues with the three-elementary school building approach. A current “great unknown” for the district is the possibility of state guidelines changing in regards to preschool education for birth to five-year-old students.
Funds were passed at the federal level to expand preschool education, and Illinois school districts are waiting to hear from the state about whether an expansion will be mandated. If there was a mandate, the Rochelle elementary district would require more space and staff, Harper said.
“We're going to need to reexamine what the next-best approach will be if we need to expand the number of students we're serving,” Harper said. “The attendance center model works with a certain number of students. If that number goes up, that's a good problem and we're serving more students or it means that Rochelle has grown and we'll have to make changes.”